Excerpt: The Church started with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, but for a number of years it consisted of Jews only and existed as a sect of Judaism. With the power of the Holy Spirit, it grew quickly, but continued to live like Jews, and was confined to Jerusalem.
The first 30 years of the church can be divided into four phases.
The first phase commenced with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 and ended when the church was scattered from Jerusalem through persecution (8:1). Estimates of the duration of this phase vary from one year to four years.
During this phase God’s Holy Spirit worked mightily, performing many great miracles (2:43; 5:12-16; 6:8; 4:22; 5:18-19), giving courage to the apostles and power to their sermons. In a few years, the church grew from the initial group of 120 to many thousands (2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7). However, the church was confined to Jerusalem, consisted of Jews and Jewish proselytes only and functioned as part of Judaism. Indications of the Jewish nature of this first phase are:
In Jerusalem – The church received the power of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (1:4). The Jewish Council (5:21, 27) later declared “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (5:28). This first phase of the early church closed with the comment: “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (6:7).
Pentecost – God selected Pentecost to pour out His Holy Spirit. On that annual festival devout Jews from all nations, who spoke the language of the nation where they were born, were gathered in Jerusalem (2:10, 5). God also gave His followers the ability to speak the languages of these foreigners, indicating God’s purpose to reach Jews from all over the world with the good news of Jesus Christ. On that day 3000 Jews were added to the church (2:41).
Call to repentance – Peter, the primary spokesperson during this phase, did not hesitate to blame the Jews for the death of “Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst” (2:22-23, 36; 3:13-15; 4:10-11; 5:30), but he also called the Jews to repentance, teaching:
That God exalted Jesus to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior to grant repentance to Israel (5:31);
That, for Israel first, God raised up His Servant Jesus and sent Him to bless Israel by turning them from their wicked ways (3:26, 20) and;
That the promise of the Holy Spirit is for them (Acts 2:38-39; 3:19).
It is therefore clear that God did not reject Israel for killing Jesus. God continued to give preference to Israel after Christ’s death.
Jewish Sermons – The sermons were entirely Jewish, indicating that it was intended for Israel alone. Peter addressed his audience as “Men of Israel“ (2:22, 36) and quoted liberally from the prophets (2:17-21, 25-28; 3:18, 21-25). Stephen’s defense before the High Priest and the council was also thoroughly Jewish, summarizing Israel’s history (Acts 7).
In the Temple – The church worshiped every day in the temple (2:46; 3:1, 8 and 3:11), where only Jews were allowed. God gave them explicit instructions to preach in the temple (5:20, 25 and 42). God gave a most significant miracle at the temple (3:1-10), attracting the attention of all the Jews worshiping in the temple, and giving Peter the opportunity to witness powerfully (3:19; 4:4).
In conclusion, during these first few years, God limited the efforts of His Holy Spirit to Jews. The church grew extremely fast, but consisted of Jews only, continuing to live practically as Jews. Christianity at this time was a subset of (part of) Judaism, and the dramatic actions of the young church were still confined to Jerusalem.
For a period of forty days after His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His chosen apostles (Acts 1:2), proving to them than He is alive (1:3). At the end of the forty days He was taken up into heaven (1:2-3).
Just before He was taken up, He gave orders to His apostles (1:2) not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait in Jerusalem to be baptized with the Holy Spirit (1:4-5). Ten days later, on the day of Pentecost, the remaining 120 followers of Christ (1:15) were all together in one place. Suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind that filled the whole house. There appeared what looked like tongues of fire that came to rest on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages (2:1-4).
On that day and during the subsequent years God’s Holy Spirit worked mightily. “Many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles” (2:43; 5:12; 6:8). A man that was more than 40 years old (4:22), and who was lame from birth (3:2), was healed at the temple (3:1-10). The apostles were securely locked up in prison (5:18, 23), but an angel released them (5:19). The people of Jerusalem “even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them” (5:15). “People from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were … bringing people who were sick … and they were all being healed” (5:16).
The Holy Spirit gave courage to the apostles and power to their sermons. The church grew from the initial group of 120 to many thousands in a few years. On the day of Pentecost alone the followers of Jesus increased from 120 to more than 3000 (2:41). “The Lord was adding to their number day by day” (2:47). After the healing of the lame man at the temple, there were more than 10000 believers (4:4). Thereafter “all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (5:14; 6:1, 7). This is amazing, considering that the Leader of the group was killed, but instead of His followers hiding away, the number of followers increased exponentially on the basis of the teaching of these “uneducated and untrained men” (4:13). This shows the power of the Holy Spirit.
However, the church was limited to Jerusalem, consisted of Jews only and functioned as part of Judaism. Indications of the Jewish nature of this first phase are:
Jesus explicitly told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the power of the Holy Spirit (1:4). The Jewish Council (5:21, 27) later declared “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (5:28). This first phase of the early church closed with the comment: “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (6:7).
The church received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost when devout Jews and proselytes from all nations were gathered in Jerusalem (2:10, 5). These Jews and proselytes included, amongst others, Parthians, Medes, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans and Arabs (2:9-10). They spoke the language of the nation where they were born. They also heard the sound from heaven and came together to see what it is. The Holy Spirit gave the believers the ability to speak the various languages of these people. These foreigners were amazed to hear the 120, whom they knew were Galileans (2:7), speaking in their own foreign languages of the mighty deeds of God (2:11-12).
The fact that God chose Jerusalem and the day of Pentecost to pour out His Holy Spirit, and that He gave His followers the ability to speak the languages of these foreigners, indicates God’s intention to reach Jews all over the world with the good news of Jesus Christ. On that day 3000 Jews were added to the church (2:41).
JEWS CALLED TO REPENTANCE
Peter, the primary spokesperson during this phase, did not hesitate to blame the Jews for the death of “the Holy and Righteous One”::
On Pentecost Peter said to the Jews: “Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man … you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (2:22-23) AND “Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36).
In his speech in the temple, after the healing of the lame man, Peter said to the Jews gathered in the temple: “His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate … you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life” (3:13-15)
The next day, after they were jailed for teaching in the temple, Peter said to the “rulers and elders and scribes … gathered together in Jerusalem” (4:5, 8): “by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone” (4:10-11)
The Jewish Council (5:27) later complained, “you … intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (5:28), but Peter reiterated “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross” (5:30).
But God did not reject Israel for killing Jesus. Christ’s prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” was an expression of God’s heart. Israel still had the opportunity to repent (3:17-19). Therefore Peter and the apostles preached repentance to the Jews:
“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise (of the Holy Spirit) is for you and your children and for all who are far off” (Acts 2:38-39)
After the lame man was healed, Peter said to the Jews in the temple, “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away” (3:19).
Not only did Peter preach repentance to the Jews; he preached repentance for Jews first. He assured his Jewish listeners:
That “for you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways” (3:26);
That Jesus is ”the Christ (Savior) appointed for you” (3:20) and;
That “God exalted (Jesus) to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel” (5:31);
Paul often used the phrase “Jew first” (E.g. Rom. 1:16; 2:9, 10). God, after the death of Christ, not only sent the gospel to the Jews first, but they will always have the first right to salvation. “From the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Rom. 11:28).
Peter’s sermons were entirely Jewish. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he addressed his audience as “Men of Israel“ (2:22) and “the house of Israel” (2:36) and quoted both Joel (2:17-21) and David (2:25-28). These references would have meant nothing to any Gentile standing around. The 3000 people who were saved that day would all have been Jewish. His second sermon, in the temple, after the lame man was healed, was also entirely Jewish. Several times he referred to the prophets (3:18, 21, 24-25), explicitly mentioning Samuel (3:24), Moses (3:22) and Abraham (3:25).
Stephen’s defense before the High Priest and the council was also thoroughly Jewish, summarizing Israel’s history (Acts 7).
IN THE TEMPLE
After Pentecost, the 3000 believers were “day by day continuing with one mind in the temple” (2:46), where Gentiles were not allowed (Acts 2:46). The nearest the Gentiles could get was the Court of the Gentiles that surrounded the Temple. “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer” (3:1). “They were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico”, which was a specific part of the temple (compare 3:8 and 3:11).
God gave Peter to heal a lame man “at the gate of the temple” (3:2, 7). This man “they used to set down every day at the gate of the temple” (3:2). All the people knew him (3:10). Since God had removed his deformity, the man was probably now, for the first time in his whole life, allowed to enter the temple. He “entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (3:8). With the man still “clinging to Peter and John” (3:11), and with all the people gathering around them, full of amazement (3:11), the miracle gave Peter the opportunity to testify in the temple, where only Jews were allowed. God chose this location, which confirms that God’s efforts were still focused on the Jewish nation. Peter urged them to “repent, so that your sins may be wiped away” (3:19). Many believed, and the church grew to 5000 men (4:4).
After the apostles were jailed (5:18), an angel released them and told them to go and speak to the people in the temple (5:20), which they did (5:25). The authorities arrested them again (5:26), “flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus” (5:40), but they just kept on preaching in the temple “Jesus as the Christ” (5:42). Their worship still centered around the temple. In their view, they were the true Jews.
For a number of years after Jesus’s death and resurrection, God limited the efforts of His Holy Spirit to Jews. During this first phase of massive growth, the church consisted only of Jews, continuing to live like Jews. Christianity at this time was a part of Judaism, and the dramatic actions of the young church were still confined to Jerusalem. The later three phases provide additional evidence for this conclusion.
Key Phrases: Early Church, Holy Spirit, Acts 2, Pentecost, Jesus the Nazarene, Jewish origin of the church, Proselytes, Jews first, Jew first, First Church
ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
1. Jerusalem Phase: The church consisted of Jews only.
2. Judea and Samaria Phase: All Christians still observed the Law of Moses.
3. Gentile Dispute Phase: A dispute arose whether Gentile Christians must observe the Law of Moses.
4. Separation Phase: The Jerusalem Council decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.
5. Theological Implications of Early Church History.
6. Estimated dates for significant events in the early church.
See Early Church Table of Contents for a more complete description of these articles.